In the middle of the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume famously asked which came first: experience or ideas. Thereby he summarized the two great traditions in Western intellectual history.
Deriving from Plato the idealist tradition placed ideas before experience. You can hear it today in those political thinkers who are constantly criticizing our nation for failing to fulfill one or another ideal. Against ideals like equality and justice, idealists tend always to find reality lacking.
Thus, they are constantly criticizing and finding fault. They pay lip service to successes and accomplishments, only to revert to their default mode: something is wrong with a nation that has failed to live up to their ideals.
Those who make experience primary value tradition and custom. Tradition is the record of successes and failures, of what works and what does not work, of trials and errors. Tradition is also embodied in the verdict of the marketplace. The market is like a laboratory where new products and new ideas and new customs are tried out and judged.
One of the French words for the English verb, to experience, is: experimenter.
Idealists begin with a narrative. Then they cherry pick facts that affirm the truth of their narrative, ignoring the rest.
Those who believe in experience begin with the facts, formulate a potentially explanatory hypothesis and then test it experimentally. They accept the verdict of reality. If the experimental results contradict the hypothesis, the hypothesis will be rejected.
As a rule, those who place ideals ahead of experience are liberals while those who place experience ahead of ideals are more conservative. One political party is concerned with whether a policy brings the world closer to its idealized vision. The other one judges policy in more pragmatic terms: does it or does it not work?
One would imagine that the more conservative political party would choose candidates on the basis of their experience. And one would imagine that the more liberal political party would choose candidates on the basis of their belief in the right ideas. Or better, on their making a political point by being the first member of a disadvantaged group.
Apparently, this is not what is happening in today’s political circus. Especially on the Republican side. For reasons that remain to be ascertained, Republican voters seem to be completely disinterested in candidates who have extensive political experience. Their conservatism shows itself in their belief that extra-political experience trumps a career in politics. They seem to have no interest in whether a candidate can really do the job.
To which Michael Kinsley-- in an essay that seems mostly to be directed at Carly Fiorina’s withering campaign, but that can easily be applied to other candidates-- responds:
Only one business titan has ever been elected. That was Herbert Hoover, a mining magnate who traded in an enviable reputation as overseer of humanitarian work in Europe during and after World War I for a reputation he will never shake, whether justifiable or not, as the hopeless loser who needed to be ejected from the White House in order to make room for F.D.R., the professional politician.
I have in the past noted that if we compare two leftist politicians, an amateur like Barack Obama and a professional like French president Francois Hollande, we see clearly that the latter has been up to the task of facing down Islamist terrorism while the former clearly has not.
For those who are enamored of the idea of putting a professional real estate developer in the White House, I would note that the country is currently being run by a professional real estate developer named Valerie Jarrett. How’s that working out?
Republican voters believe in experience, but not political experience. Apparently, they do not understand the nature of the job of POTUS. Are they coming to their senses? Currently, they are having second thoughts about the candidacy of a neurosurgeon who has no political experience at all. You have to wonder why any of them ever had first thoughts about Dr. Ben Carson as a presidential candidate. You understand why the cognoscenti of the conservative movement are losing their collective minds.
In any event, Kinsley-- no conservative he-- makes the case for political experience.
For any other job I can think of, experience at the job is considered to be an asset. Obviously no one can truly have had experience at being president except for an incumbent running for re-election. There are certain jobs, however, that prepare you at least for a small part of the job of president. I would have thought, for example, that being secretary of state is pretty good training for a future president. So is being vice president, to take another example.
True enough, secretary of state is one good qualification for the presidency. Kinsley does not mention it, but the job is qualifying only to the extent that one produced diplomatic successes. A failed secretary of state, an individual who has never really accomplished anything, has no business running for president. Unless of course her party’s electorate wants to fulfill an ideal and strike a blow for equal rights by electing someone with XX chromosomes.
Obviously, governors have the most executive experience. Kinsley notes that governors have little experience in foreign policy, which is not true of governors who have served in Congress.
But, experience has a downside. Kinsley adds, interestingly, that the longer you have been in public life, the more gaffes you are likely to have made. This year, the gaffes do not seem to be working against the leading Republican candidate, however, but it is certainly true that real experience, as a governor or a senator must have put a candidate in the position of having made any one of a number of compromises. It is the only way to get anything done. From the perspective of today’s Republican electorate, this seems to be disqualifying.
One understands that conservatives have an affinity for negotiated compromises. They believe in social harmony and know that people do not live harmoniously in society unless they know how to compromise. They cannot do it by engaging in constant drama and conflict.
So, this year, the Republican electorate is agog over a candidate who apparently knows how to negotiate real estate deals. Which is a good thing. It does not seem to care that he has never negotiated a political deal and cannot possibly know enough about the issues to do so.
As for governors, Kinsley explains the pros and cons:
Governors running for president like to say that the governorship experience is valuable because their state is larger than 63 members of the United Nations, or has an economy the size of the moon, or something along those lines. The analogy between running a sovereign nation and running a state government is not perfect. A nation has to field a military force or at least have some theory of what happens if neighbors invade. It must do something about the currency and the economy in general. It must have a foreign policy. Nevertheless, the mandate of a governor remains larger than that of, say, a senator. But with the voters of 2016, this sort of experience cuts no ice. In fact, experience like this is a negative. It’s not your long record of loyal service that counts. It’s the gaffe you committed last week. The newer you are in public life, the less likely you are to have committed a career-compromising gaffe. That’s why experience of any kind—in politics or in business, successful or unsuccessful—can be a disadvantage in politics.
And yet, conservatives seem to believe that running the country is like running a business. It is not. If I may repeat myself, consider the case of a real estate developer who has done considerable business with banks. He had come to believe that all bankers are fools and idiots. Do you think, on the basis of his experience, that he should be made CEO of a major money center bank?
Kinsley argues that there are two kinds of experience, in business and in government. He should mention that CEOs have only to answer to their boards. If they own the company they do not have to answer to anyone. Politicians have to answer to their political parties, the opposition parties, to world leaders and to the people of the country.
Kinsley also notes that politicians are much closer to the real lives of everyday people than are CEOs:
But voters have somehow gotten the impression that experience in business is closer to the real world than experience in politics. In terms of lifestyle—how you get to work, where you buy your suits, whether you know how your dishwasher works, what you do on weekends—this is almost certainly not true. C.E.O.’s live on a cloud of assistants, standing ready to satisfy their slightest whim. Think of the Smithers character on The Simpsons. Or think of another cartoon character, Donald Trump. When was the last time he rode the subway? Giving too much weight to this kind of symbolic populism, which we do, is foolish. But to assume that a congressman leads a lifestyle that the C.E.O. of even a small business would envy is naïve. It’s the other way around.
Republicans ought to be looking for a candidate with extensive knowledge of the issues and extensive experience dealing with them. It would help if he had a record of success and achievement in government.
Apparently, it’s too much to ask.